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Waltrip Racing Takes Big Step Forward at Bristol

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 18 2012

Martin Truex Jr. and team owner Michael Waltrip could be on the verge of a break-through season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

BRISTOL, TENN. – Michael Waltrip Racing raised more than a few eyebrows when it announced its driver lineup for 2012.

Many wondered if Clint Bowyer had made a mistake leaving Richard Childress Racing. Few considered the team an option for Mark Martin, whose contract with Hendrick Motorsports ended last year. Only Martin Truex Jr. remained.

Since the team was formed in 2002 it had occasionally produced good runs, but lacked consistency. With only two victories and 17 top 5s to its credit entering Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, MWR was rarely at the top of anyone’s list as a victory contender. However, that changed Sunday at the tough, half-mile track.

For the first time in the organization’s history, all three of its drivers finished in the top 5. Martin Truex Jr. claimed third, Bowyer fourth and Brian Vickers fifth.

It was Truex’s fifth top-5 since joining MWR in 2010 and Bowyer’s first. For Vickers, who began a six-race deal with MWR at Bristol after being without a ride since the 2011 season ended, it was his first top-5 since Talladega last October. In his first race this year, Vickers also led three times for 125 laps, second

Clint Bowyer was a big addition to Michael Waltrip Racing. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

only to race winner Brad Keselowski.

However, just like the performer who didn’t become a star overnight, neither did MWR’s transformation. Truex says that began the middle of last year when the team restructured the way it operated.

“Michael (Waltrip) and (co-owner) Rob (Kauffman) really took a step back as an organization,” Truex said. “TRD [Toyota Racing Development] was giving us a lot of input. Toyota had a lot of influence on the direction we headed. (We) really kind of started from scratch, almost. There was a while there last year where we were building new stuff. It kind of took a while to get everything put in place to make sure that it was going to be good.”

Truex’s crew chief Chad Johnston joined the team mid-season last year.

“He was coming into his own, getting some confidence, getting his arms around the team and what I liked in the race car, what our race car liked in general,” Truex continued.

Towards the end of last year MWR began rolling out its new cars. Then, towards the end of the year MWR hired Scott Miller from Richard Childress Racing. Miller’s move was influential in Bowyer’s decision to leave the only team he’d been with since joining NASCAR’s national touring series. Then, in the off-season, in addition to Martin and Bowyer, crew chiefs Brian Pattie and Rodney Childers moved into their respective roles.

Even though Bristol marked the organization’s first appearance in the top 5 this season, it had been visible in the top 10 the entire year. Martin finished 10th in the Daytona 500, earned the pole at Phoenix and placed ninth while Truex finished seventh in that event. In the season’s third race at Las Vegas, Bowyer took sixth.

Truex noted that one of the key things Martin brought to the team was confidence in it.

“When he comes in there and says, ‘Man, I really like these race cars, I like what you guys are doing’, I think that makes a pretty big impact,” Truex explained.

At the season’s first three races, Truex said Martin was “very happy and very complimentary of the team and the direction they were heading.”

“I think that gives the team a lot of confidence,” Truex said.

After four races, Truex is now fourth in the standings, 18 points behind leader Greg Biffle, and Bowyer possesses eighth, 31 points in arrears. The No. 55 Toyota driven by Vickers is also being piloted by Martin and Waltrip this season. In owner points, the No. 55 is seventh, 20 points out of first.

In the season’s first four races, it’s obvious MWR possesses the talent. What remains to be seen is whether it can maintain its consistency.

– Deb Williams can be reached at dwilliams@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 18 2012
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